Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Stabilizing Climate: Harnessing the Wind

World wind-generating capacity, growing at 29 percent a year, has jumped from less than 5,000 megawatts in 1995 to more than 47,000 megawatts in 2004, a ninefold increase. (See Figure 10–1.) Wind’s annual growth rate of 29 percent compares with 1.7 percent for oil, 2.5 percent for natural gas, 2.3 percent for coal, and 1.9 percent for nuclear power. There are six reasons why wind is growing so fast. It is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, widely distributed, clean, and climate-benign. No other energy source has all these attributes. 13

Europe is leading the world into the age of wind energy. Germany, which overtook the United States in 1997, leads the world with 16,600 megawatts of generating capacity. Spain, a rising wind power in southern Europe, overtook the United States in 2004. Denmark, which now gets an impressive 20 percent of its electricity from wind, is also the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of wind turbines. 14

In its 2005 projections, the Global Wind Energy Council showed Europe’s wind-generating capacity expanding from 34,500 megawatts in 2004 to 75,000 megawatts in 2010 and 230,000 megawatts in 2020. By 2020, just 15 years from now, wind-generated electricity is projected to satisfy the residential needs of 195 million consumers, half of Europe’s population. 15

After developing most of its existing 34,500 megawatts of capacity on land, Europe is now tapping offshore wind as well. A 2004 assessment of the region’s offshore potential by the Garrad Hassan wind energy consulting group concluded that if governments move aggressively to develop their vast offshore resources, wind could be supplying all of Europe’s residential electricity by 2020. 16

The United Kingdom, moving fast to develop its offshore wind capacity, accepted bids in April 2001 for sites designed to produce 1,500 megawatts of wind-generating capacity. In December 2003, the government took bids for 15 additional offshore sites with a generating capacity that could exceed 7,000 megawatts. Requiring an investment of over $12 billion, these offshore wind farms could satisfy the residential electricity needs of 10 million of the country’s 60 million people. At the end of 2004, the United Kingdom had an offshore generating capacity of 124 megawatts, with an additional 180 megawatts under construction. 17

The push to develop wind in Europe is spurred by concerns about climate change. The record heat wave in Europe in August 2003 that scorched crops and claimed 49,000 lives has accelerated the replacement of climate-disrupting coal with clean energy sources. Other countries that are turning to wind in a major way include Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, India, and China. 18

One of wind’s great appeals is its abundance. When the U.S. Department of Energy released its first wind resource inventory in 1991, it noted that three wind-rich states—North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas—had enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs. Those who had thought of wind as a marginal source of energy obviously were surprised by this finding. 19

In retrospect, we now know that this was a gross underestimate of the wind potential because it was based on the technologies of 1991. Advances in wind turbine design since then enable turbines to operate at lower wind speeds, to convert wind into electricity more efficiently, and to harness a much larger wind regime. In 1991, wind turbines may have averaged scarcely 40 meters in height. Today, new turbines are 100 meters tall, perhaps tripling the harvestable wind. We now know that the United States has enough harnessable wind energy to meet not only national electricity needs, but national energy needs. 20

When the wind industry began in California in the early 1980s, wind-generated electricity cost 38¢ per kilowatt-hour. Since then it has dropped to 4¢ or below at prime wind sites. And some U.S. long-term supply contracts have been signed for 3¢ per kilowatt-hour. Wind farms at prime sites may be generating electricity at 2¢ per kilowatt-hour by 2010, making it one of the world’s cheapest sources of electricity. 21

Low-cost electricity from wind can be used to electrolyze water to produce hydrogen, which provides a way of both storing and transporting wind energy. At night, when the demand for electricity drops, the hydrogen generators can be turned on to build up reserves. Once in storage, hydrogen can be used to fuel power plants. Wind-generated hydrogen can thus become a backup for wind power, with hydrogen-powered electricity generation kicking in when wind power ebbs. Wind-generated hydrogen can also serve as an alternative to natural gas, especially if rising prices make gas prohibitively costly for electricity generation.

The principal cost for wind-generated electricity is the upfront capital outlay for initial construction. Since wind is a free fuel, the only ongoing cost is for turbine maintenance. Given the recent volatility of natural gas prices, the stability of wind power prices is particularly appealing. With the near certainty of even higher costs of natural gas in the future, natural-gas-fired plants may one day be used only as a backup for wind-generated electricity.

The United States is lagging in developing wind energy simply because the wind production tax credit (PTC) of 1.5¢ per kilowatt-hour, which was adopted in 1992 to establish parity with subsidies to fossil fuel, has lapsed three times in five years. Uncertainty about the tax credit has disrupted planning throughout the wind power industry. With the two-year extension of the PTC in mid-2005, however, through the end of 2007, growth in wind power investments is escalating rapidly. 22

Given wind’s enormous potential and the associated benefits of climate stabilization, it is time to consider an all-out effort to develop wind resources. Instead of doubling every 30 months or so, perhaps we should be doubling wind electric generation each year for the next several years, much as the number of computers linked to the Internet doubled each year from 1985 to 1995. Costs would then drop precipitously, giving electricity generated from wind an even greater advantage over fossil fuels. 23

Energy consultant Harry Braun points out that since wind turbines are similar to automobiles in the sense that each has an electrical generator, a gearbox, an electronic control system, and a brake, they can be mass-produced on assembly lines. Indeed, the slack in the U.S. automobile industry is sufficient to produce a million wind turbines per year. The lower cost associated with mass production could drop the cost of wind-generated electricity below 2¢ per kilowatt-hour. Assembly-line production of wind turbines at “wartime” speed would quickly lower urban air pollution, carbon emissions, and the prospect of oil wars. 24

The economic incentives to spur such growth could come in part from simply restructuring global energy subsidies—shifting the $210 billion in annual fossil fuel subsidies to the development of wind and other renewable sources of energy. The investment capital could come from private capital markets but also from companies already in the energy business. Shell, for example, has become a major player in the world wind energy economy. In 2002, General Electric, one of the world’s largest corporations, entered the wind business, becoming overnight a major wind turbine manufacturer. 25

These goals may seem farfetched, but here and there around the world ambitious efforts are beginning to take shape. In the United States, a 3,000-megawatt wind farm is in the early planning stages. Located in South Dakota near the Iowa border, it is being initiated by Clipper Wind, led by James Dehlsen, a wind energy pioneer in California. Designed to feed power into the industrial Midwest around Chicago, this project is not only large by wind power standards, it is one of the largest energy projects of any kind in the world today. In the eastern United States, Cape Wind is planning a 420-megawatt wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. 26

Some 24 states now have commercial-scale wind farms feeding electricity into the U.S. grid. Although there is occasionally a NIMBY problem (“not in my backyard”), the PIMBY response (“put it in my backyard”) is much more pervasive. This is not surprising, since a single large turbine can easily generate $100,000 worth of electricity in a year. 27

The competition among farmers in places like Iowa or ranchers in Colorado for wind farms is intense. Farmers, with no investment on their part, typically receive $3,000–5,000 a year in royalties from the local utility for siting a single, large, advanced-design wind turbine, which occupies a quarter-acre of land. This land would produce 40 bushels of corn worth $120 or, in ranch country, beef worth perhaps $15. 28

In addition to the additional income, tax revenue, and jobs that wind farms bring, money spent on electricity generated from wind farms stays in the community, creating a ripple effect throughout the local economy. Within a matter of years, thousands of ranchers could be earning far more from electricity sales than from cattle sales.

The question is not whether wind is a potentially vast source of climate-benign energy that can be used to stabilize climate. It is. But will we develop it fast enough to head off economically disruptive climate change?



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